Tumult in Harlem underscores storied neighborhood’s generational and ethnic divide
Harlem is in turmoil. Again. Three Democratic candidates are lining up to run against Rep. Charlie Rangel, who himself is gearing up for his 21st reelection campaign. The Latino community in Northern Manhattan is up in arms over the possibility it might not get its own congressional district. And the Manhattan and Bronx Democratic parties are feuding over how best to divide the spoils of redistricting.
In other words, more political upheaval has come to a neighborhood that has seen its share of change over the last few years.
Underscoring these conflicts is a generational divide between young, ambitious politicos and the gray-haired political machine in Harlem that to some seems to exist solely as a Charlie Rangel protection unit.
Two years ago, the election cycle was brimming with youthful primary challengers of all stripes: first-timers, political scions, hedgefund- backed insiders—all buoyed by hopes of wholesale change until they fell short on Election Day.
While there are fewer challengers this year, there is no shortage of condemnation for the process.
Basil Smikle, a political consultant and Columbia doctoral student who ran against Sen. Bill Perkins in 2010, said Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s success at restoring order to Albany has had a calming effect on some of the neighborhood’s politics.
“[Back in 2010] you thought to yourself, ‘How are these people still in office?’ ” Smikle said. “Now that there’s a grown-up in the room, you don’t hear a peep out of any of them. They fall in line and behave nicely. Not much impetus to force any of them out for bad choices or inactivity.”
Still, Smikle says the neighborhood’s political leaders haven’t learned the lessons of 2010.
“Let me be clear: There has never been any mentoring with the younger generation uptown,” he said. “Charlie’s been there 40 years; Inez Dickens has been around a long time; Bill Perkins has been around a long time. The youngest elected official, I think, is Keith [Wright], who’s in his late 50s.”
But Cuomo’s presence—and the uncertainty surrounding redistricting and the state’s primary election dates—hasn’t deterred everyone. Vince Morgan, an ex-aide to Rangel who ran against him in 2010, is running again this year, largely on a platform of dissatisfaction with Harlem’s insider politics.
“The Harlem political machine is dead,” Morgan said. “They just don’t know it yet.”
Assemblyman Keith Wright, chairman of the Manhattan Democratic Party, begs to differ. He declined to comment on how redistricting would impact Rangel’s reelection effort and on reports of a spat between Wright and Bronx Democratic Chairman Carl Heastie over who will eventually succeed Rangel in Congress.
“Negotiations are still ongoing, so I’m not going to comment on that at all,” said Wright, who is quietly positioning himself as a successor to Rangel in Congress. “Life is always changing. Every neighborhood goes through an evolution.”
Sen. Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat representing Washington Heights and a vocal advocate for a new Latino-majority congressional district, said the political leadership in Northern Manhattan wasn’t dead, just metamorphosing.
“The new leadership, the emerging leadership in this neighborhood, will be more diverse,” said Espaillat, who has been eyeing a run for Congress but says he won’t challenge Rangel for his seat. “We can build on the legacy of the Adam Clayton Powells and the Charlie Rangels of the world.”
Sources close to Rangel say they are resigned to the fact that the congressman’s district, which as it stands today is a Latinomajority district, will likely be redrawn into the Bronx and Westchester, which poses new problems for Rangel, Wright and the political establishment.
“The dynamics you’re witnessing are a younger generation saying, ‘Look, the demographics are changing, the businesses are changing, the issues have become far more complex,’” Smikle said. “You need somebody who represents the spirit and ideology of the old Harlem, but also the actual the background of the folks that are coming into Harlem now.”
He said, “You need somebody to bridge that divide.”
Tags: adam-clayton-powell, Adriano Espaillat, Albany, Andrew Cuomo, Andrew J. Hawkins, Basil Smikle, Bill Perkins, Bronx, carl heastie, Charlie Rangel, Congress, Democratic Party, Harlem, Inez Dickens, Keith Wright, Manhattan, redistricting, state senate, Vince Morgan, Washington, westchester
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